Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality regulation. Doing away with regulations might sound like a good thing—no one wants to be stifled by a need to play by the rules—but in this case, there could be bleak consequences.
But first of all, what is net neutrality?
It’s the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all legal online content equally. They must be neutral. With net neutrality, content competes. With the repeal of net neutrality, internet carriers compete–and are no longer required to provide equal access or platform to the content.
In fairness, almost nothing is as black and white as the net neutrality “debate” has appeared to be. Mustn’t there be some upside to repeal? Some have asserted that the FCC decision is simply a return to the pre-2015 online environment, before net neutrality regulation was put in place. It wasn’t as though, in 2014, the internet was a Wild West of censorship, the argument goes. The defense is also put forth that net neutrality stifles innovation by disincentivizing investment in new provider tech (“Why would providers develop new, faster service when it’s hard to compete on it?”). To be sure, there are credible reasons to believe killing net neutrality has potential benefits.
And yet, it’s difficult to see how those benefits, even if fully realized, outweigh the risks. The danger posed to content creators and the 99 Percent is real. Much of the American public has voiced displeasure at the prospect of repeal, arguing it benefits elites and hurts everyone else. They may very well be right.
Christians, no less than anyone else, have plenty of reasons to want a neutral internet. Here are three reasons why—and why the end of net neutrality may be painful for the faithful.
The first amendment enshrines the right to the freedoms of speech and conscience. That means Americans, in theory, don’t need to fear censorship for legally-protected speech, including proselytizing or speaking “religiously.”
With the death of net neutrality, the threat to freedom of speech on the internet rises. After the repeal, ISPs are no longer required to treat all online content equally. That means there are scenarios in which an ISP could gag or throttle access to a site it doesn’t value—or that doesn’t produce value.
Some service providers have vowed not to take such limiting measures, but it’s certainly not out of the question, especially as we move farther down the road.
As ISPs now become judges of the content to which they provide access, they also take on the responsibility of determining the path and speed of accessibility, if they will allow access at all.
In a worst-case scenario, what happens if a provider decides, for whatever reason, it wants to make access to particular websites, or particular ministries, or particular blogs more arduous for web surfers? Or it wants to slow the speed of access? Or it wants to censor?
Now, technically, the provider can do just that.
Ultimately, repealing net neutrality removes the legal obligation for providers to treat internet content equally. In other words, discrimination of websites is now permissible. Maybe it won’t target Christians, but you can bet some communities will feel left out or left behind. For the sake of equal speech and freedom to express and share views on the internet—and not be ostracized by intermediaries for it—Christians should care about keeping providers neutral.
2. Justice for the Underprivileged
Under net neutrality law, we thought of the internet as a public utility—like water. In the United States, everyone is entitled to access clean water, regardless of their lot of in life. Net neutrality said the same thing for the internet.
We might say that the web isn’t as essential as H2O, and of course that’s true, but in the world we live in, access to the internet means access to information. Information, knowledge, the ability to communicate and learn online, is power.
However, with net neutrality gone, it seems inevitable that ISPs will sooner or later play capitalism with internet access. That means big companies and people with more money will be able to pay for faster, better access online. Small businesses, gig economy players, and the under-resourced will have to settle for slower, lesser access. Tiered entry means more buffering or banishment at the bottom and paying for privilege at the top. We already see this inequality in countries without net neutrality where people must pay for internet bundles. Instead of full, free access, it may now come in pieces and at various levels from which we’ll have to choose—and pay for—the keys.
As Christians, we should desire access to valuable resources for all people. We should want the poor and lowly to have access to the blessing of the internet’s deep wells of information and entertainment. Not to mention, tiny, low-budget churches could have trouble competing with big-budget megachurches that can spend big to move bytes.
Net neutrality and its death are all about access. Access is a justice issue. Because when equal access isn’t protected, it’s easy to spot the individuals and communities that will suffer.
3. Human Flourishing
The flourishing of humankind is a blessing and mandate of God. Certainly, the internet has more than its share of abuses, but it’s also one of the greatest tools we have to empower human flourishing. The internet is not just games and YouTube; it’s also encyclopedias and classes, tutorials and instant global communication, community organizing and relationship building, a million libraries and a billion perspectives.
One of the beautiful truths of biblical flourishing is that it does not discriminate. As we seek the shalom of the city, country, and world, we do not only mean their peace, but also their thriving. If we believe that greater intellectual, relational, psychological, and spiritual prosperity are possible when people are more connected, voices can be heard, relationships are buildable, and information is accessible, than we should desire an internet—and internet providers—that values those things.
Net neutrality and its death aren’t obviously religious issues. But as Christians—and as humans beings who value free expression, justice and equality, and human flourishing, we should care.